Wednesday, April 28, 2010

IN MEMORIAM:
KEITH 'GURU' ELAM

hip hop,guru,premier,gangstarr

Rap musician Keith ‘Guru’ Elam has died (born July 17, 1961). Long considered an elder statesman of hip-hop music, Guru was a founding member of the hip-hop group Gang Starr (above right, started in the 1980s), as well as having had a parallel solo career of importance from the 1990s forward. According to a recent article by his brother, Elam was 48 years old, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse who veered into rap music where other family members became attorneys or joined academia.

As a lyricist, Guru joined contemporary ‘street intellectuals’ of hip hop, delivering a mixture of MC battle-aggression on certain songs as well as thoughtful moral observations on the contemporary music industry and social conditions in the inner-cities of America . On his solo albums, Guru eased off of cursing and invited an assortment of veteran and contemporary musicians to collaborate on his Jazzmatazz offerings. Some of the collaborators included Donald Byrd, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Herbie Hancock, and Branford Marsalis.

In recent years, Guru’s life and career took an unfortunate turn for the bizarre: Circa 2004, less than a year after the release of Gang Starr’s last group effort The Ownerz, a press release was distributed indicating that the group had been dissolved, and that Guru would now by default be a solo artist, and starting up his own independent label, 7 Grand Recordings. His new business and musical partner was John Mosher, aka Solar (not to be confused with the Afro-French hip-hopper MC Solaar who contributed to the first Jazzmatazz LP).

Despite Solar seemingly being a newcomer to hip-hop industry insiders, Guru heaped fawning praise on his new partner, declaring this to be his new permanent career path. Guru, who was almost never interviewed outside the company of Solar, was defiantly evasive about the reasons he split from DJ Premier, and would come to be increasingly dismissive of their time together. In certain interviews, Guru went so far to say that he and Premier were ‘never’ friends, and that their collaboration was simply a ‘business arrangement’, and stressed that the concept of Gang Starr went back further than his meeting Premier, and thus Premier’s claims on the Gang Starr legacy were tenuous at best. Guru and Solar would insinuate that others in the Gang Starr extended family of artists and associates were taking advantage of Guru and disrespecting him, prompting his cutting of ties.

Guru delivered three more solo albums in collaboration with Solar. Critical response was positive, but sales were minimal (to be sure, Gang Starr/Guru rarely went gold, even on their most acclaimed albums). By now, urban radio was a closed yard, but Guru managed to maintain his fanbase by touring, especially internationally, headlining select festivals and other events.
Still, questions followed him wherever he went about the separation from Premier, and the possibilities—however remote—of an actual Gang Starr reunion. Anecdotes started popping up on the Internet hip-hop blogospheres, about alleged diva-like behavior on Solar’s part (example- allegedly insisting on being in all fan photos with Guru). Rumors began to circulate, mostly centering around Solar having some kind of Svengali-like influence over Guru— and perhaps the most inflammatory idea being that Guru and Solar were romantically involved.

Tragically, Guru apparently suffered a heart attack in early 2010, and slipped into a coma; accurate information was fleeting concerning his condition, which eventually was revealed to be cancer; some family members claimed that they were blocked from seeing him in the hospital; at one point Solar released a letter allegedly penned or dictated by Guru, that once again trumpeted Solar’s credentials, while managing to take sharp jabs at DJ Premier, allegedly requesting that he not be allowed to participate in any tribute events, and lastly gave mention of a non-profit foundation allegedly started by Guru, where fans could make donations. Ultimately Guru died on April 19 from complications. He left behind a son, K.C., who is 9 years old.

Since the death of Guru, there has been an outpouring of fan sorrow for the rapper and his family, and fan anger (at the mysterious Solar). A recent interview was conducted by HipHopDX.com with Tasha Denham, a former employee of 7 Grand Records, friend to Guru and, apparently, ex-lover to Solar (she has a child by him). If her statements are to be believed, the bombshell interview reveals a scandalous level of alleged manipulation of Guru’s life by Solar, including verbal and physical abuse. For his part, Solar has given a public interview with MTV personality Sway, effectively denying that there was anything negative or manipulative in his relationship with Guru.

The aftermath of Guru’s death is still an ongoing saga. Some form of a tribute event has been promised by his family members, and DJ Premier has already recorded a free mixtape in tribute to him. Public opinion has largely condemed Solar; it remains to be seen what his next career move will be, but already allegations exist that the nonprofit described in Guru's alleged deathbed letter is formally owned by Solar's ex-wife, and its 501-c-3 status may not be in good standing.

I think the first songs from Gang Starr that I ever heard were from the second album, 1990’s Step Into the Arena; the songs were the singles from those albums, “Just to Get a Rep”, “Love Sick”, and “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?”. I missed out on Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues film that year, and I barely remember seeing the accompanying Gang Starr single/video, “Jazz Thing”. I thought the group was pretty good, and I probably taped the singles as they played on my radio, but I hadn’t been compelled yet to seek out their work in cassette form.

The first Gang Starr album I actually owned was Daily Operation, when it came out in the spring of 1992. I was at the tail end of my first year in college, and “Take it Personal” was the first single, which I thought was banging. I’m thinking I purchased Operation and the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head LPs on cassette the same day. I ended up playing the Operation album on a regular basis throughout the next year. Guru's unique, smoky monotone voice fit in just right with the rhythm tracks by his partner DJ Premier (Christopher Martin). The trend had recently crept into hip hop of using vintage jazz recordings to create breakbeats and samples, and Gang Starr were among the primary pioneers of that style of hip-hop. They always stressed that their love of jazz was genuine, and not just a hipster gimmick to get fleeting attention. Unfortunately, crossover fame seemed to elude the group compared to A Tribe Called Quest and the short-lived US-3 collective, who also made prominent use of jazz backdrops to their recordings.

I never got to see the group (or a solo Guru) play live in concert; I’m not sure how often they visited Detroit, but with them being primarily based out of New York City, my guess is that it wasn’t a standard part of their touring jaunts. I still checked for the songs on urban radio and the cable video shows.

He will be missed.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

WWJB? (What Would Jesus Blog?)

On the Afro-Punk website message board (I think my link to the right still works), someone started a discussion on contemporary religious practices in the USA and the views towards non-mainstream faith practices. At some point, this author chimed in regarding his general preference for a more liberal-leaning faith community. The poster Something Else wanted me to elaborate on this angle. And so:

In short, I'd define such a community as one where, philosophically, it is not inordinately focused on dogma.. Pragmatically speaking, this would be a place where, for example, gay folk are not called out for being part of the "reason" why there is suffering in the world/USA; where Intellectual honesty is uplifted rather than baseless rumormongering, i.e., Obama is a closet muslim & Marxist-style socialist/communist. This would be a community of folks who genuinely look to the examples of Jesus in the Gospels (reaching out to the sick, outcasts, foreigners, promoting communal sharing, critiquing fundamentalism among 'scholars') instead of reflexively holding onto Old-Testament worldviews and judgement on everything that they don't like (http://tinyurl.com/yje3et7 ).

This would be a community not hung up on how "The liberal culture" promotes social tolerance, and spinning that into the notion that, having a sex-ed class in school effectively teaches kids to be gay and/or promiscuous.. As far as it relates to popular culture, this would be a community of folks who don't have inordinate hangups about trends in popular music, fashion or movies, even if certain films, TV, or music are really not their thing.. In other words, they're not trying to thump in your head that you're going to Hell for liking the Terminator, The Simpsons, hard rock, rap, and they don't uplift the angle of "Pagan Fantasy" when it comes to things like Harry Potter, Pokemon, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, etc.

This would be a community of folks who don't have a problem with 'leftist' activism at least where it concerns labor rights, civil rights, environmental respect, financial reform, health care reform, etc. This would be a community that promotes gender respect-- uplifting the role of men & women as leaders, giving respect where it is due (i.e., rejecting the trend of a male pastor getting sole credit for an event where most of the grunt-work is done by women); This would be a community that rejects the hyper-formality of many contemporary churches where the pastor is "only" referred to as 'Pastor', even in non-church, non-event settings, and one-on-one conversations can only be arranged through a string of go-between deacons, elders and/or secretaries. This would be a community of folks who are troubled by developments like prolonged wars and jingoistic foreign policy. They would not uncritically accept the idea of Jesus bombing anyone, including "nonbelievers".. This would be a community of folks that, despite their own strong beliefs in Christ and His message, they hold no grudge against interacting with those of other faiths, even the tacit bigotry of "gosh, they're nice enough folks, too bad they're Buddhist" types of attitudes.
This would be a community of folks that rejects "Prosperity Gospel". They would believe in supporting their home ministry but not at the downgrading of one's own existence; these folks would blanche at the notion that their pastor(s) have to be so much more wealthy than the congregants, just for the sake that church leadership can "hold court" with other affluent people (i.e, captains of industry, politicians, etc.).

Lastly, this would be a community of folks who are not hung up on the idea that Armageddon/The Rapture will be coming in their lifetime, or even in their children's lifetime, and therefore uncritically support chaotic middle-east conflicts, instead of supporting-- and demanding from elected officials-- peaceful diplomatic solutions. In short, these would be folks that bypass all the right wing demagoguery (in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) that defines much of ministry in the contemporary world, and the United States in particular.
Especially among the 'religious' types who now form the base of the Republican Party/conservative activism, the hardliners among my Catholic contemporaries would see me as a recalcitrant backslider for being pro-choice (among other things) and the most hardcore of Evangelical types see me as an Illuminati sympathizer/Vatican apologist/child-molestation advocate by default.. I would respect black Republicans a lot more if I heard anything from them that was different from Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Pat Robertson, etc.. I have my own issues with what I feel is a hyper-centrist culture in contempoary Democrats, but i'll take their general platform vs. what Michael Steele & co. have to offer.
TRIBUTE: MALCOLM MCLAREN,
1946 - 2010

malcolm mclaren,world famous

Malcolm McLaren, a British-born music industry impresario, has just died, as documented in the New York Times- http://tinyurl.com/yhlyffh.

In mainstream pop culture, McLaren is most famous (or infamous?) for his managing and promotion of the pioneering Sex Pistols punk-rock band during their meteoric rise and fall during the 1970's. At the beginning of the Reagan era, however, he found himself dabbling in another underground music culture with roots in New York City--hip-hop.

The CD Buffalo Gals: Back to Skool compiles virtually all of the hip-hop related recordings that McClaren had a hand in producing, primarily with the World Famous Supreme Team: According to McLaren, they were a duo of part-time 3-card-Monte hustlers who caught his attention in Times Square, who happened to also host a community-access radio show in New York City where they showcased early hip-hop records, and eventually their collaborations with McLaren.

"Buffalo Girls", "She's Looking Like a Hobo", "Hey DJ" and several more good-times party songs all show up on the CD (largely culled from 12-inch recordings, as most of the material never surfaced on a proper album). Recorded before sampling technology had become common, the original songs feature mostly live instrumentation from session musicians, that still holds up to today's standards. Lyrically, the rhymes are much more simplistic compared to today, and may come across to contemporary listeners as quaint: "Two buffalo gals going 'round the outside, 'round the outside, 'round the outside" (as voiced by McLaren himself), but their work was also free of profanity and gangster themes. The Supreme Team never hit the mainstream, but was an important outfit to know in the pre-Run-DMC era of hip-hop. Also collected with the archival songs are new cover recordings, including legendary hip-hop musicians like De La Soul, Rakim and KRS-One.

Interspersed between all the songs are interviews with McLaren himself, where he candidly talks about his encounters with hip-hop's early figures and his attempts to help the music get a foothold in the industry; frequently being scolded by industry gatekeepers, A&R reps from pop, rock and even soul divisions of the establishment labels turned a blind eye, clearly not knowing what they were missing.

Between the old and new songs, this is the definitive compilation/tribute to an unlikely early champion of hip-hop music. May he rest in peace.

Buffalo Gals @ Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/ykklu9z

Monday, April 05, 2010

GETTIN' JANKY WIT' IT

Janky Promoters” is the latest gleefully low-brow buddy comedy pairing Ice Cube and Mike Epps. Here, the duo star as a pair of improbably incompetent concert promoters. Russell Redds (Cube) and Jellyroll (Epps) have just struck a deal with popular hip-hop artist Young Jeezy (playing himself), and have less than 24 hours to finalize the logistics, despite the fact that they have less than $1,000 between them.

Thus begins a series of increasingly grating misadventures, as Russell and Jellyroll seek to con their way into having a successful show. The filmmakers could have made the lead characters more likeable, despite their slacker status. As it stands, despite the efforts of Cube and Epps, Russell and Jellyroll mainly come across as boorish clowns that you want to fail—Russell steals his fiancĂ©e’s checkbook to pay his share of the concert costs, and Jellyroll brags to a reality-TV crew that he’s sleeping with a married woman (Character actors Tamala Jones and Glenn Plummer are wasted as the unfaithful wife and her cuckolded husband, respectively.)

It’s hard to sympathize with most of the characters here; they to be reflexively foul-mouthed and defiantly ignorant. Among the parade of eccentrics are a sex-starved manager, star-struck hotel maids and a mom who prepares crack like it’s Sunday dinner. One of the few bright spots involves Russell’s teen son ‘Young Seymour’ (James "Lil’ JJ" Lewis), an amateur rapper who nonetheless thinks he’s entitled to a room-crowding entourage. Russell’s unabashed encouragement of Seymour’s dancers to rump-shake more inadvertently highlights the recurring critique of rap-as-sexploitation.

Taking into account such film phenomena as the Farrelly Brothers, Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, ‘slob comedies’ clearly have a place and an audience. Still, Promoters isn’t likely to entice viewers beyond the converted. Looking at the broader themes in the film (fly-by-night promoters, vapid stars and their hangers-on, dope-dealers who want in on the action), it could have been a more clever satire of behind-the-scenes goings-on in the hip-hop music industry (the screenplay credit goes to Ice Cube.) Yet the film functions as an unofficial sequel to the Friday movie series—in fact, given the cult popularity of those films, it’s unclear why the filmmakers didn’t go that route. Unless viewers are Ice Cube or Mike Epps completists, Promoters is a rental at best.